Stroke of ‘Genius’

Ron Howard’s ‘Genius’ Take on Albert Einstein: Sex, Nazis, and Donald Trump

The Oscar winner explains why his new Albert Einstein series ‘Genius’ resonates more after Trump’s election than expected. Plus, why he thinks Einstein sex scenes are important.

You may not be prepared—as I certainly was not—to be introduced to Albert Einstein in the new National Geographic series Genius with the trailblazing professor mid-coitus: pants around his ankles, dress shirt barely disguising his arsch, if you will, and his bushy mustache barely muffling his grunts.

“I don’t think I was either,” Ron Howard laughs, talking about the series the morning of its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. (The first episode airs Tuesday night on NatGeo.)

“Initially when I read the script I wondered if it was taking a little license and reaching into some extreme direction,” he continues. “But when I followed up and read Walter Isaacson’s book and did further research, lo and behold he was quite the lothario, along with everything else.”As Howard says, Genius is loosely based on Walter Isaacson's 2007 biography Einstein: His Life and Universe. By jumping back and forth between Einstein as a renegade schoolboy (Johnny Flynn) to his time as a celebrity scientist (Geoffrey Rush), it searches to provide a “warts and all” look at the man that proves, as co-executive producer Gigi Pritzker says, “he is so much more than that famous image of the crazy professor with his tongue sticking out.

Not only does Howard—who has an Oscar for his previous work exploring the life of a genius with A Beautiful Mind—executive produce the series, but he directed the first episode as well. How the series introduces Einstein made for one of the more interesting experiences of his career: directing someone dressed as Albert Einstein in a sex scene.

“I thought it was hilarious,” Howard says, letting out that familiar cackle laugh. He found a friendly ally in Geoffrey Rush, too, who performed the scene.

“I mean we knew it was a little bit controversial,” Howard says. “We talked about it internally. When Geoffrey signed on he said he thought it’s a great script and that it’s brilliant to introduce this character that way. It tells everyone that we’re going to have a warts and all look at this guy.”

That the series toggles back and forth between young and old Albert means that, with dashing South African-born English actor Johnny Flynn in the role in Einstein’s schoolboy years, you might also have to brace yourself for an unexpected crush on sexy Einstein. “You said it! Not me,” Flynn laughs.

It’s all in the greater good of the series, he claims, which doesn’t just reveal the scientist’s robust libido but also the ways he used his fame and status as one of the world’s most well-known Jews to take a stand against Nazism, as he finds himself on the organization’s hit list.

“It’s one of the tasks of the first episode to break down our two-dimensional view of this absent-minded professor as quickly as possible, to smash down those preconceived notions we have of the emoji version of Einstein,” Flynn says. “So in the first two pages you have the political assassination of one of Einstein’s closest friends, and then he’s shagging his secretary.”

The team behind Genius is not only armed with talking points about this “warts and all”—a recurring phrase—approach to depicting Einstein, but also with an awareness of how the current political climate in the U.S. suddenly makes the series that they had scripted and filmed long before Donald Trump became president suddenly more relevant.

It’s nearly impossible to watch scenes from Tuesday night’s first episode, for example—in which Einstein and his second wife Elsa (played by Emily Watson) are trying to flee Nazi Germany, where their lives are in danger, but face a roadblock in the U.S.’s tough immigration policies—and not marvel at its vital resonance today.

“Watching the first episode, I got chills,” Flynn says.

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“Those pressures and threats on people and narrow-minded thinking and greed and careerism around science and politicizing science and discovery—they’ve never faded entirely,” Howard says. “But it certainly has not been lost on us that these issues are more up front and center, and reemerging with a level of intensity that we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s the U.S. but it’s also around the world. So those scenes in episode one and in the series definitely carry with them more impact than I think we expected when we began.”

Pritzker had actually optioned Isaacson’s book years ago with the idea of turning it into a feature film, a project that had several stalled starts. In hindsight, there are any number of reasons to be grateful the adaptation turned out the way it has with Genius, but among them is its political relevance today.

“The fact that it’s coming out now and the fact it is so deeply resonant, A) that was not lost on any of us on set and B) it makes me realize that having not appeared as a feature film five years ago is a terrific thing,” she says.

The series sheds light on young Einstein’s steadfast commitment to his own passion and curiosity, even as his work was dismissed as “Jewish physics.” (When Howard and actor Michael McElhatton talked about how he would play German physicist Philipp Lenard, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who was also a Hitler-supporting anti-Semite, they decided that he should, ‘think Trump.’”) It also depicts what it was like for Einstein to travel to America as a refugee.

To align their performances, Flynn and Rush were given the same dialect coach. As soon as they were cast, they began Skype sessions together to talk about the character and share their research with each other.

For Flynn, who is also a musician, getting cast as Einstein is particularly wild. Not only does he share a birthday with the icon, but he wrote a song in 2011 titled “Einstein's Idea.

“When my son was born in 2011, that year when he was a baby I wrote this song that was meant to be a lullaby that was going to explain the cosmos and the theory of relativity to this infant, almost like a kind of joke,” he says. “But to do it I researched some of the theories of relativity and principles of relativity and created Einstein in the song as this benevolent character watching over my son.”

Howard found it hilarious when Flynn finally told him about the song. He actually attended one of Flynn’s concerts in London last month when they were doing press there for Genius. When we spoke, Flynn says that Howard was planning to attend his concert over the weekend in New York as well. “I’m going to play the song and dedicate it to him,” he says.

Already there are plans for a second season of Genius, though season one has yet to air. For Howard, he thinks the series—which will chronicle a different thinker in season two—offers the opportunity to refocus what it means to be a “genius.”

“I think it gets overused and tossed around in ways that aren’t true,” he says. “Every impressive achievement is not genius.”

A person must challenge norms, and have a certain amount of courage to qualify for the title, he says. It’s not enough to simply be smart or intrepid. Einstein? Unsurprisingly, he fits the bill.

“If he had been on one of those hit lists and just decided to go to his country and dial back, his life would have been a lot safer,” Howard says. “But he had the courage to carry on, to be high profile, come what may. And his life also would have been a lot easier on a personal side had he simply said, ‘I’m going to yield to convention. I’m not going to dedicate myself to my work as much. I’m going to follow the rules and the definition of a great family man.’ Well, he made a trade-off there.”

The power of the show, he hopes, will be to “humanize what it means to actually be on the vanguard of discovery and to dedicated your life to that discovery.”